Jack and Suzy Welch

Jack and Suzy Welch

Success secrets | From public sector to private business

Success secrets | From public sector to private business

I have a master’s degree in Public Administration and have worked in government for 13 years, but I am thinking about making the leap to the private sector. Any advice?

—Cynthia Whitbred-Spanoulis, Virginia Beach, Virginia

Jack and Suzy Welch

OK, that’s an overstatement. But your question reminds us of what happened to a friend of ours.

About 15 years ago, she graduated from business school and took a managerial job with a non-profit organization devoted to preserving wildlife. For about a decade, our friend liked her job well enough. The people were interesting, the hours flexible and the cause, worthy.

But, about two years ago, she found herself at her wit’s end with the organization’s bureaucracy, not to mention the slow arc of her career trajectory and compensation. And so, armed with a résumé highlighting her managerial experience and analytical skills, she applied to every consulting firm in her city.

No one would hire her. No one would even interview her. Finally, in frustration, she got one firm’s vice-president to talk to her on the phone.

“He said public sector hires never work out," she told us. “They can ‘cross the border’ into the business world, but they never seem to grasp the culture."

Now, we doubt public employees never work out in the private sector. Indeed, lawyers seem to flow well between the two worlds, especially in industries such as financial services, pharmaceuticals and aerospace, where it’s valuable to know your way through the maze of government regulations. But, we understand that VP’s view.

The difference between how people think and operate in the public and private sectors can be vast indeed. The reason, of course, is competition. Public sector organizations basically have none.

In 2003, then-Indiana governor Joseph Kernan said he wanted to protect local jobs and terminated a state contract with an Indian software company. He got cheers all around. But, businesspeople had to laugh. In the global marketplace, low costs and superior performance make or break you. And that changes everything.

Take job security. In most non-profit situations, as long as you don’t screw up, you’re pretty much guaranteed lifetime employment. First of all, unions make it very difficult to remove anyone—even an employee who has zero interest in improving the team’s results. But, even when there aren’t unions present, a ho-hum, “We’re all the same here" culture prevails in the public sector. Rigorous performance appraisals that differentiate between star, average and poor performers rarely happen. They would be a waste of energy. And so, everyone’s safe.

Competition also changes pacing. No doubt, over your years enmeshed in government bureaucracy, you’ve developed boatloads of patience. You’re used to people responding slowly to requests for information or output. Maybe you’ve even come to move unhurriedly yourself. By contrast, in the business world, lack of speed has a consequence. It can kill you.

Don’t stop reading!

The good news is that you very likely have two skills that will help you on the other side. The first is the ability to motivate people with very few tools—i.e. money—at your disposal. Companies, of course, make it easier to reward people with pay and stock options. But, you will be ahead of the game for knowing how to galvanize people using just your own energy and vision.

Second, you’ve surely picked up the art of bringing together different groups, like, say, parents and school committees. Such interpersonal skills will translate perfectly in any business environment.

In working for the public sector, you have indeed been living in something of a foreign country. But, the border isn’t closed if you understand where you’ve been. We’d say make the journey anyway. The change of scenery will do you good.

I’ve just started my own business and would like to know how much hardball to play during negotiations. I don’t want to be taken advantage of.

—Name Withheld, Columbia Falls, Montana

You may be new to business, but you ask an age-old question.

When it comes to deal-making, what is the right amount to leave on the table? There is no exact number or percentage, of course, but generally speaking, the answer is, enough to make another deal another day.

Given your new role as an entrepreneur, we would guess you’re hoping to build both a career and a reputation. And that just can’t happen if, after every negotiation, the other person feels taken to the cleaners. You’ll never get another deal sent your way.

On the other hand, you don’t want to give away so much that you’re the one taken—for a fool. Your challenge, then, is to find the middle ground between the two. And you will—with experience.

Just remember, like life, business is built on relationships. Err on the side of fairness and you’ll be richer for it in every way.


Write to Jack & Suzy

Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Campaign readers can email them questions at winning@livemint.com. Please include your name, occupation and city.

Only select questions will be answered.